I have just finished watching all five seasons of Breaking Bad. If you haven’t heard about it yet I am not sure where you hang out, but it is the story of Walter White, an unsuccessful and morally ambiguous chemist and his remarkably self centred response to a diagnosis of cancer. This involves using his technical knowledge to come up with a superior quality grade of illegal drug that becomes very popular in New Mexico.
As it happens I am also an unsuccessful and morally ambiguous chemist roughly the same age as Walter White. Luckily I am currently in good health and I don’t have any plans to start doing the same kind of thing here in Sussex. But it does give me a personal perspective on the character. For a start, the chemistry in the series is as far as I can tell spot on. It isn’t ever pointed out, but at one stage the purity of a batch is checked with a hand held refractometer. (Do those still get used in regular labs? The model they used look just like one I had in the seventies.) I loved that. It is a really simple instrument – it doesn’t even need batteries – that tells you a lot about a sample just by passing the light through a particular kind of crystal. Improvising a simple solution to a problem is a hallmark of good chemists. One of the appealing things about the character of Walter, who is totally unlikeable in many ways, is his ability to improvise.
We all struggle to get by in life with all its pitfalls and obstacles. All we have is our brains and our innate drive to survive. The idea that science can be used as a tool to stay one step ahead of all the bastards out to grind us is one that isn’t articulated very often. But it is certainly one of the motives of people who go into science. It is the polar opposite of the party line. Scientists often claim that they are engaged on a co-operative venture to further our knowledge of the universe. And while that is part of the story, it isn’t the whole thing. Most real scientists have a bit of a Walter White in them somewhere. If you know one you have upset, they probably won’t put ricin in your tea. But they have probably thought about it.